The Man Page – Building Champions
Story by Tom Loeffler | Jun 27, 2018
Photography by Keith Borgmeyer
Terry Walker has come home to be the head football coach of his high school team, the Jefferson City Jays, while Chris Hentges is doing likewise with the Helias Crusaders. (Hentges is only coming home to the sidelines, however, as he’s continued to teach at Helias.) Walker, 51, is a 1985 graduate of JCHS and Hentges, 52, graduated Helias in 1984, and both have coached at their schools before — Walker for two years as an assistant and Hentges as both an assistant and head coach. Now, both are looking to restore their school’s championship tradition.
What’s the excitement level to be back as the head coach of your alma mater?
Walker: It’s off the charts. One of the reasons I came back to Jefferson City after I retired from the Air Force is that I wanted to coach at JC, and getting the opportunity to be the head coach is really — and I hate to use the cliché — a dream come true. I love the school, I love the community. I just felt a sense of loyalty to come back and try to put kids in a position to have some of the similar experiences I had.
Hentges: Helias is a special school and place, and it has a special place in my heart. At 52, a lot of guys who are in education and coaching are getting ready to retire and ride off into the sunset. I feel I have more to give. I’ve been away from it now for three years, but it’s not like I was away from the game because I still watched it a lot. I’m not that far removed from the game-planning and all the prep work it takes to prepare your team for Friday nights. But being away from the sidelines, I’ve missed it. I’m excited and ready to get started. I’d say that’s the mood for all the coaches and players.
How has the game changed since you were in high school — not necessarily the blocking and tackling aspect, but in the challenge of building a team with today’s student–athletes?
Walker: The kids will respond to any challenge you put in front of them. Collectively, parents want you to be tough on their kid . . . until you’re tough on their kid. For some of them, it’s kind of hard to watch that happen. I’ve had very few issues with kids [Walker was head coach at Blair Oaks the past three years], but parents are a new dynamic. At the same time, kids are resilient, kids are tough, and my experience is that they need to learn a work ethic and how to face and overcome adversity.
Hentges: It’s been my experience that we have just as hard-working kids now as we had back in the day, if not more so, because the offseason is much more important now. We’re asking these kids to get up at six in the morning and come in three or four days a week during the winter, spring, and summer. People may say kids aren’t what they used to be, but I don’t find that to be the case. They’re still willing to pay the price.
Both programs have high standards to compete at the highest level and be in the hunt for a state championship. What do you need to do to bring back that level of excellence?
Walker: I want the kids to be successful on the field, and I firmly believe if we prepare them, that will translate into other aspects of their life. We try to encourage and teach the intangibles: discipline, accountability, service before self, and playing for something greater than yourself. I know if we do those things, the results will take care of themselves. The kids have to believe in what you’re trying to do. That starts in the classroom and extends to the weight room and onto the football field. That’s part of the process. Kids today are incredibly smart — they can see an individual who doesn’t care about them. I truly believe that kids probably don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.
Hentges: For us, what we’re trying to instill this year is belief: We want them to believe we can be good and believe in doing the hard work that comes along with that. They need to believe in the program, believe in themselves, and believe in what we’re doing. I try to stay away from being too judgmental about parents because I think our parents are more involved than they’ve ever been and they’re very supportive of our program. Everyone wants to win and expects to win, and I like that. My hope is that we can return to glory as soon as possible, and I truly believe we can. One of these days, we’re going to knock off Webb City [Helias’s nemesis in the playoffs through the years] because they’re the gold standard in Class 4.
What are your expectations for this season and beyond?
Walker: Our expectation is that we’re going to be excellent in everything we do. We’ve made some tremendous gains in the weight room, and the kids are working hard academically and will continue to improve in that area. I hate to talk in terms of wins and losses, but there’s not a single guy on our coaching staff who expects us to step on the field and lose. We’re going to prepare, we’re going to play as hard as we possibly can, and we expect to be successful.
Hentges: I think we have the talent and the coaches. My expectation is that the wait won’t be very long for us to be back winning district titles and competing for state championships. I don’t see this as a four- or five-year rebuild. I’ve always been confident and optimistic with our guys. I guess that’s probably just rubbed off from my dad [Ray, Helias’s football coach for 33 years and winner of two state championships] because that’s the way he always felt. We’re going to be tested early, but I know our boys are going to respond and give us everything they’ve got.